LITTLE ROCK — A federal lawsuit challenging the way judges are elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals won’t be tried by a judge in late August, as previously scheduled.
Citing uncertainty caused by the outbreak of covid-19, a disease caused by the coronavirus, U.S. District Judge James Moody removed the case from his docket Friday morning, leaving a new trial date open for the time being.
The lawsuit was filed in June by a group of civil-rights advocates and attorneys, led by the Christian Ministerial Alliance, seeking to force the creation of a single majority-minority district for the Supreme Court and two majority-minority districts for the Court of Appeals.
The lawsuit alleges that the state’s method of electing appellate judges dilutes the voting strength of black voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The seven Supreme Court justices are elected statewide to eight-year terms, while the 12 Appeals Court judges are elected from seven districts, five of which elect two members.
Attorneys for the state asked Moody in August to dismiss the case, arguing that “justice should not be administered on the basis of race, and Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] does not require this court to fundamentally reshape the Arkansas judiciary.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs responded that the Act was enacted for “the broad remedial purpose of ridding the country of racial discrimination in voting,” including state judicial elections.
In September, Moody set a date of Aug. 24 for a non-jury trial.
On Feb. 21, he dismissed some of the defendants — the state itself, the chairman of the state Board of Apportionment, the Board of Apportionment and the Arkansas Board of Election Commissions. — on the grounds of sovereign immunity. He gave the plaintiffs 10 days to correct a legal deficiency that he said would, if uncorrected, lead him to dismiss the suit against the remaining defendants — Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Secretary of State John Thurston and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
The plaintiffs filed an amended complaint March 2, in response to the directive. On April 3, the state asked him to halt discovery, the process of information-gathering for the case, for at least 90 days. They cited social-distancing measures to contain the covid-19 pandemic that would interfere with obtaining documents from state offices, meeting with witnesses and taking depositions, as well as the state officials’ focus on controlling the pandemic.
The plaintiffs objected Tuesday, saying information they seek is available electronically, and that any inconveniences to the state are outweighed by the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
Moody said Friday that he agrees with the state that original deadlines “are no longer workable,” but “that does not mean that all efforts to conduct discovery should cease.”
He ordered the parties to meet electronically within 20 days and work out a time frame for the state to provide requested election data
Because of uncertainties caused by the pandemic, Moody said he won’t yet issue a new scheduling order.